As society attempts to grapple with George Floyd’s death, racism in the workplace continues to be an issue companies work to eradicate. What we know to a certainty is that racism in our workplaces will not go away “on its own.” And, often leaders within organizations don’t know how to approach the topic in an effective and inclusive manner, so they don’t and racism continues to fester. According to Glassdoor, 42% of US employees have directly experienced or have witnessed racism at the workplace and 55% feel that their company should be doing more to promote diversity and inclusion on their teams.
There remains a racial paradox of injustice within the workplace today, as there are employment laws to combat workplace racism, yet it often persists through the confines of perfectly legal employment actions. These actions are taken by employers who, at times, do not realize when they are disproportionately impacting some employee groups within the workplace. An example of this is when employers develop written tests for employment or promotion that result in disqualifying minorities disproportionately. It is up to everyone to further define these not easily seen areas and to reduce its presence in the workplace so employees are empowered to be themselves, feel safe, and thrive.
“Like a virus that has mutated, racism has evolved into a new form that is difficult to recognize and harder to combat.”
—J. Dovidio (The Subtlety of Racism, Training And Development Journal)
The Many Faces of Workplace Racism
Our collective efforts in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in our workplaces are falling short. Truly, knowing how best to combat racism, in all of its forms, can be challenging to do. Every person’s relationship to racism or discrimination in the workplace varies significantly, based on individual experience. Regardless, it is our job to pave the way for our employees to follow. They should not only have a clear path of policies and workplace cultural expectations to follow, but also leaders who model the behavior we expect to see in others and demand zero tolerance toward behaviors that do not meet our expectations.
If you outrightly discriminate based on protected classes such as race, there are consequences in place that hold you accountable (namely Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or “Title VII,” which protects individuals against employment discrimination on the basis of race and color as well as national origin, sex, or religion). This article also applies to the more nuanced, subtle, and unseen-by-many types of racism found in the workplace today.
We cover the areas where we find, most commonly, racism resides, oftentimes unseen or unnoticed by both the perpetrators (employers) or, believe it or not, the victims (minorities within the workforce).
Interviewing and Hiring
In the recruitment of new employees, racism continues to play an undeniable role in some workplace practices. Awareness is needed when dealing with team members who hire and interview potential candidates. An example would be an interview panel team member who has a bias of discomfort toward working with Black people. Another would be an individual supervisor who is interviewing candidates but refuses to consider Latinos because of a poor experience with someone matching that ethnic group in the past. Setting predetermined interview questions and ensuring that hiring managers have been trained to be mindful of personal biases is critical to snuffing out racism at this stage of employee management.
Title VII makes it illegal to set job policies that appear to be neutral but in fact, are not job-related and disproportionately harm workers of certain races. An example of this is requiring a bachelor’s or master’s degree for a position when it is not a necessary part of the qualification. For example, if the position happens to be a warehouse or primarily a physical labor-related position and doesn’t really require a degree, putting in this requirement could disproportionately exclude certain people groups.
Employment Termination or Layoffs
As with hiring practices, your organization’s reasons for terminating one’s employment should be based on sound business reasons. Unlike the open-ended interview process, HR can more effectively engage with supervisors before final decisions being made to terminate one’s employment. Simply having an active policy that does not allow such employment action without the involvement of HR is critical to ensuring that missteps are not made and illegal reasons used for firing someone.
Layoffs or furloughs should also be for sound business reasons. If an employee is being laid off due to company cutbacks or reorganization that’s one thing. If they are really being removed because of race or other forms of discrimination, it can be difficult to recognize as to whether or not there is racial motivation behind such actions. Including HR or an employment attorney to help managers make wise, fair, and legal decisions when laying off or furloughing employees is a smart move and will serve your organization well, through a more well-grounded method.
Passing a qualified employee of color up for a promotion because a manager is more comfortable working with a white person is not an acceptable employment practice. This, again, can be cloaked in unique qualifications or special talent that the white employee has that the Black employee does not, even though the qualifications expressed may have no relevance or pertinence to the job at hand.
Many employees experience racism through, at times, employers taking no action at all. An example of this is not matching pay or overall compensatory increases as positions change for an employee of color. A Blak or Latino employee moving into a supervisory position yet does not receive an increase, while a white employee who was recently hired into a similar supervisory position was awarded a larger pay rate, which can result in inequality and discrimination in the workplace. Maintaining pay scales for each position in the organization to use as a guide can help eliminate discriminatory and inequitable employment practices, unintentional or otherwise.
If your organization has a multitier job classification program then it is essential that oversight of the program is ensured to prevent inequity. Over time, one’s responsibilities may increase within the same job, but the position title or classification does not, while, for other employees, it has. That can be considered discrimination based on race. If a Black employee’s job progression has remained stagnant while white colleagues executing similar work have not, that is considered inequitable treatment.
Harassment and Bullying
A more straightforward form of racism is racial-based workplace harassment. An example might be if a co-worker thinks it’s funny or cool to use an ethnic slur in conversation or to tell jokes insulting ethnic groups or minorities. These comments cannot only be illegal and against company policy but can make people feel uncomfortable, degraded, or unsafe in the workplace, which in itself is enough to want to eliminate such behavior. Oftentimes management does not follow up properly with such complaints, which compounds both the employee’s racist behavior and liability to the organization.
Employees have a right to be free from retaliation for their opposition to discrimination or their participation in an EEOC proceeding by filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or otherwise participating in an agency proceeding. Additionally, there is a form of “blackballing” former employees which can also be considered retaliation for speaking out or submitting a complaint while employed. Blackballing is referring to providing poor employment references for no reason that is traceable to poor performance, attendance issues, and so on. Any retaliation taken on behalf of the employer, through supervisors or other employees in leadership, is illegal. Period.
Recognizing Biases and Resulting Behaviors
Surprising to you or not, and whether or not you agree, we all have innate, implicit biases. According to the Kirwan Institute (for the study of race and ethnicity) at Ohio State University, unconscious (or implicit) biases are, “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, decisions and actions in an unconscious manner. These implicit biases we all hold do not necessarily align with our own declared beliefs.”
Within the workplace, unconscious biases often impact external hiring and internal promotions, desirable or sought-after projects, career advancement opportunities, and even interactions with vendors, customers, and affiliates of our organizations that also can impact the company negatively, both through legal and branding aspects.
Although not all sources of racism in the workplace are implicit or unconscious in nature, much of it is and it is within these areas that we need to direct more attention, discussion, and resources.
This bias can influence hiring and promotional decisions within the workplace and cannot only result in hiring supervisors hiring the same type of candidate over and over again but can discriminate against other races and ethnicities in the organization.
Prejudice and Overt Bias
It is certainly true that some people are prejudiced against one or many races and ethnicities. Holding this prejudice is what overt bias truly is: intentional and unmasked racial feelings and opinions that may result in discrimination in its many forms.
Behavior that we are all truly guilty of at one point or another in our lives is stereotyping. More times than not, stereotypes result in negative characteristics of a people group. Even those who are well-meaning and not overtly biased can nevertheless stereotype. It too comes in many different forms and behaviors. Stereotyping is considered to be attributing the same general characteristics to all members of a people group, regardless of individual differences. Stereotyping is typically based on quick-judgments, misconceptions, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, incomplete information, and generalizations.
We have all heard of racial profiling, mostly in the context of police racially profiling minorities in society. This happens in the workplace as well. A reliable definition that applies to racial profiling is any action taken for reasons of safety, security, or employee protection that rests on stereotypes about race, color, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin rather than utilizing reasonable suspicions for such actions.
Actions to Take Right Now
It is our responsibility as business leaders to serve our organizations in a way that promotes equity and inclusivity for all team members we choose to employ. Having said that, when compounded with George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests around the country, it can be understandable if employers might not know how best to act in a way that everyone can embrace. The below Morning Consult poll displays employee responses to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although there is a never-ending list of options of what employers could do or should not do, there are actions that can be taken by any employer that will better address continued and oftentimes difficult to identify racism in the workplace.
Listen, Acknowledge, and Support
Preferably led by an HR professional or a third-party partner, employers can develop a practice that invites open discussion and dialog for sensitive topics, of many kinds, for and with employees. Once again, training leadership team members is essential here. This is not a time to be defensive or share reasons why certain actions were taken or even to highlight what actions have been taken to combat workplace racism. When forums, either in person or online, are created for your employees it is a time for them to talk and for you to listen.
Cultivate Common Language
It is essential to understand words and phrases and their multiple terms and meanings when addressing race and attempting to strike some degree of shared understanding when difficult conversations need to be had. Oftentimes the quality of dialogue is enhanced when common language is agreed to, or simply understood by those involved in the conversation.
Ensure Employees Can Safely and Confidentially Report Concerns
Developing a whistleblower process is important for any organization. Beyond that process though, HR and supervisors alike should have an open door policy as it relates to employees sharing concerns about race or any other concern they experience in the workplace.
If a whistleblower process is needed, the Department of Labor (DOL) can be a useful resource. Although the process is important it does not need to be complex or lengthy. Internally, an HR professional is ideal or, externally, you can utilize a third party through a service or develop one through an employee assistance program (EAP).
Appropriately Support Social-Cultural Movements
Another external example that an organization can take action on is to support Black and Brown lives through getting involved in corresponding social movements such as Black Lives Matter, events sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the National Urban League in ways that are meaningful to the organization. Look for ways to engage your employees when supporting movements that the company puts its brand on.
Examine Internal Practices and Policies
All policies and active practices regarding interviewing, hiring, promotions, furloughs, and layoffs should be thoroughly reviewed by leadership. HR should lead a robust discussion with leadership that addresses all of the potential employment actions, as noted above, and to ensure that there are no unintentional biases written with company policies that may result in discrimination.
Develop and Cultivate Diverse Recruitment Practices
Ensure that how, or where you advertise for your open positions includes social mediums that have a diverse, multicultural audience. Also, make certain the interviewers are trained to ask legal questions, are aware of personal biases, and can always clearly explain, either as a group or individually, their ultimate hiring decisions. Many HR professionals are big believers in structured hiring processes, as they outline, ahead of time, what the steps are, what interview questions are asked and how hiring decisions are made.
Racial Bias Awareness Training
In addition to developing a safe and inclusive work environment that allows employees to express concerns and to discuss what they are experiencing in the workplace, we suggest adding training to the mix which does a lot to augment and to enhance the workplace culture you are working hard to develop. Along with guidance from the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), we suggest the following practices to ensure that outside coaching and facilitation be as effective and all-inclusive as possible.
- Outside facilitators. Find an expert facilitator who has conducted work sessions and conversations about sensitive workplace issues, preferably discrimination, race, and equality in the workplace. Especially, topics that can be addressed in a direct, but professional fashion could include:
- Bias training awareness
- Facilitating sensitive discussions in the workplace
- Leadership team training on identifying and addressing racism in the workplace
- Make it voluntary. Two notes here, not all people feel comfortable discussing racially-charged issues in the workplace. That is fine, as long as all employees know what acceptable behavior is. Additionally, people who are forced to participate in such sessions can become hostile, resentful, and defensive.
- Ground rules are important. Set ground rules so that participants feel safe to explore uncomfortable topics. These can include not cutting people off, not utilizing certain words, showing equal respect to all involved, and so on.
- Be practical. Provide practical, actionable steps that people can use to help them overcome unconscious biases and that can assist them in conversations with colleagues.
- Develop a process and not a single event. Developing an expectation for an on-going, never-ending dialog with team members is the best way to address this topic in the workplace long term. As SHRM notes, “Training is not a silver bullet …” It should only be the beginning stage in an on-going process.
Carefully Screen New Hires
Here is the hard, unfortunate truth: Most of the time, even with awareness training and a zero-tolerance work culture against racism, we cannot change people’s beliefs, so focus on behaviors and overall fit for the cultural and diverse needs of the organization (which is referring to hiring practices that are defined and have a strong alignment with company values).
As you assess each candidate’s experience against the needs of the position, it is also essential to assess how the candidate responds to questions and can align themselves with the values of your organization. It is worthwhile and strategic to first evaluate how potential new team members will be able to further advance the equity goals, inclusive practices, and overall acceptance of all that your organization has cultivated. These assessments, although difficult at times, are just as essential to measure as skill sets, experience or background, and personality fit for the team and organization. Again, when we refer to “personality fit” we are pointing to predetermined alignment with company values. Does the candidate define ethical behaviors similarly, do they interpret concepts like “fluid communication” and “inclusivity” the same way the organization does, and so on. In short, all team members need to have self-awareness around race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic and diverse communities within the workplace. Consider inquiring about the following:
- Does the candidate have experience working directly with people from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds?
- Has the candidate been forced to work through challenging relationships within the workplace, racially charged or otherwise?
- Does the candidate have the ability to alternate and evolve their communication style in multiple cultural environments?
- Does the candidate possess excellent written and verbal communication skills, and the ability to present to diverse audiences, specifically racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse communities?
- Since anyone can be racist or biased, what experience does the candidate have with recognizing inappropriate behavior in the workplace and what action, if any, did they take in response to that behavior?
These questions accomplish a number of helpful conclusions. First, it outlines for all candidates the attention that the organization has toward racial equality and inclusivity. Second, it forces them to respond to truly difficult questions that support your desired outcome (helping you assess if their professional background and overall self-awareness is right for the team). Third, it helps you determine if your recruitment efforts are adequate as you seek out not just diversity in applicants, but diverse and inclusive thinkers and people with diverse backgrounds enough so to further enrich your workplace and its teams.
The Law: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
Race-Related Characteristics and Conditions
Discrimination on the basis of any characteristic associated with race such as skin color, hair texture, or certain facial features violates Title VII, even though not all members of a given race share the same characteristics.
Title VII also prohibits discrimination on the basis of a condition that predominantly affects one race unless the practice is job-related and consistent with business necessity. For example, since sickle cell anemia predominantly occurs in Black people, a policy that excludes individuals with sickle cell anemia is discriminatory unless the policy is job-related and consistent with business necessity (which the employer would need a clear and indisputable reason for justifying). Similarly, because Latinos have a higher prevalence of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity than do non-Latino/white adults, this can also result in disparate treatment in the workplace. Unless the policy is job-related and consistent with business necessity, there should be no unfair or disproportional impact to any minority group in your company.
Even though race and color clearly overlap, they are not synonymous. Thus, color discrimination can occur between persons of different races or ethnicities, or between persons of the same race or ethnicity. Although Title VII does not define “color,” the courts and the EEOC read “color” to have its commonly understood meaning, which includes pigmentation, complexion, or skin shade or tone. Thus, color discrimination occurs when a person is discriminated against based on the lightness, darkness, or other color-related characteristics of the person. Title VII prohibits race/color discrimination against all persons, including white people.
Can Employers Ask About Race on Applications?
At times employers may inquire about race, not to discriminate, but to identify their applicants’ race for affirmative action purposes. Many larger employers will utilize HR department-only pages or, if gathered from an online application, certain information goes to HR and not to the hiring supervisor such as race-based information (the same is true for veteran status or if a disability is acknowledged by the candidate).
In addition, many companies have EEOC requirements if they employ 100 or more staff or contract with companies who do. These companies must submit an annual report called the “Standard Form 100 (EEO-1).”
Should Race Ever Be a Qualification for a Job?
Although this may be surprising to you, the answer to this question is, yes, but only limitedly. Title VII makes an exception when certain qualifications are needed for specific or particular job-related needs. This exemption is more commonly known as a “bona fide occupational qualification” or BFOQ. For example, if a movie producer hires an actor to play the role of a Black character, being Black is a necessary part of the job or a “BFOQ.” Likewise, if the character in the movie is white, or Asian, and so on.
At times, age is also an essential part of a particular job, in the case of someone serving alcohol (bartender) or carrying a handgun (police officer or security guard) and so on.
Racism in the workplace, unfortunately, continues to persist and even thrive in some cases today. Employers should adopt “best practices” to reduce the likelihood of discrimination and to address impediments to equal employment opportunity. The people you choose to employ defines your brand and your company, as well as what it stands for. Remaining silent on the issue of racism in the workplace is no longer an available position to take. If you are not a part of the solution, you remain part of the problem. Begin building for equity and inclusion and enjoy a stronger, nimbler, and creative organization because of it.